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Robot lands a 737 by hand, on a dare from DARPA

Building a bot for the co-pilot's seat may be cheaper than adding automation software

By Simon Sharwood, 17 May 2017

An outfit called Aurora Flight Sciences is trumpeting the fact that one of its robots has successfully landed a simulated Boeing 737.

Aviation-savvy readers may well shrug upon learning that news, because robots – or at least auto-landing systems - land planes all the time and have done so for decades.

Aurora's excitement is justified by the fact its robot sits in the co-pilot's seat and used various protuberances to wield the simulator's physical controls.

Which is just what US military DARPA wants to see under its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. The idea behind ALIAS is that military air crew can often find themselves with a lot to do under very stressful circumstances, but that automating their jobs with software and avionics is going to be very costly and time-consuming. Military craft are also likely to find themselves heading for destinations that lack ground-based augmentation systems to facilitate automated landings.

DARPA's thinking therefore turned to systems that could interact with crew, take advantage of existing on-board automation facilities and offer “Easy-to-use touch and voice interfaces would facilitate supervisor-ALIAS interaction.”

Which is what Aurora has built in the form of the rig depicted above (here for readers of m.reg) that uses “in-cockpit machine vision, robotic components to actuate the flight controls, an advanced tablet-based user interface, speech recognition and synthesis” to do the job.

Aurora's done this stuff before in actual flight, but for light aircraft. Simulating a 737 landing gets it closer to ALIAS' goal of adding a helping hand to crews of large military aircraft.

As ever, this stuff's a long way from being ready to fly. Which is just as well, given recent airborne shenanigans and perpetually-rubbish IoT security. ®

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